IT is impossible to forget the moral services which Judaism and Christianity have rendered to the world. To seek to relax the obligations which the old religions have made us feel, to lower or anywise abate from the loftiness of the ideals which they have given to the world, would be to make not progress, but retrogression. Who would ignore the moral insight and heroism of an Amos or an Isaiah ? Who would put out of his mind, or could if he would, the lessons of gentleness, of humility, of purity of mind, of charity, of brotherhood, which fell from the lips and shone out in the life of the Prophet of Nazareth? Surely, not by forgetting, but by treasuring all the good the past has won, can we hope to advance in the future.
None the less must the advance be made ; and in truth all prophecy, Jewish and Christian included, has a temporary as well as a permanent element. Jesus spoke to those of his time, and with the language and the thought and we may add with the limitations of his time. But the time and the language and the thought of men change, and wider horizons are opened to their minds. What is the voice of prophecy for to-day ? is the question. All in vain would it be for me to assume the prophetic attitude. The prophet does not raise questions, he answers them. He has none of that hesitating, tentative spirit and method which mark the thought of even the best men of this transition age, and which will only cease when the new age shall have come, and the lire of irresistible convictions shall once more burn in the human breast. I am but a questioner along with the rest. I but seek to turn the attention toward the needs and problems of the present, and to show that they at least call for distinct answers and solutions, such as we look for in vain in the teaching of Jesus. For though I am far from denying, but rather have asserted, that Jesus taught eternal principles, I must add that we want more than this ; we want the application of the principles to the issues and questions of to-day, and in a form apprehensible to the thought of to-day. Else, as has been said, the principles may become as barren as they are old.1 Nothing is so common in these days as seeming reverence for the great rules of righteousness, along with ignorance of or indifference to what they mean and exact in the conduct of life. We want to make this impossible, save with a distinct consciousness of hypocrisy. Yes, sometimes those who themselves most sincerely and impressively utter the great ideas are unconscious of the full sweep of their application. The personage in Terence's play who utters the famous sentiment, "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto," has no horror at infanticide, and calls it irrational to keep a child alive who is in danger of growing up into a career of shame.1 I do not cite it as a parallel case; but it is not to be forgotten that Jesus who utters the Golden Rule, which adequately interpreted would put an end perhaps to all the ills of society, makes no condemnation of slavery; and this, though a party existed in his day which had reached a height of moral development from which it was condemned,the Essenes. Hence, "Christian ethics" could be of slight service in the late Antislavery struggles in our land. There is nothing in the New Testament inconsistent with the maintenance of slavery, if only masters are guilty of no wilful oppression or inhumanity. It was only by going back to principles of which Christian ethics themselves are but a partial statement, and which strangely enough have found modern expression in that philosophy of human rights to which the Christian Church has as often taken an attitude of hostility as of sympathy, that the way was prepared for the abolition of slavery in this country.
1 Conscience, righteousness, what is there new in these ? Their maxims are as old as the hills. Truly, and as barren often as the rocks. The novelty of righteousness is not in itself, but in its novel application to the particular unrighteousness of a particular age. Felix Adler: Creed and Deed, p. 164.
What then, let us ask generally, though without essaying any kind of formal completeness, are some of the moral needs of our time ?
1. First, I will mention that of intellectual scrupulousness and honesty. It was an old Roman saying that "two augurs could never meet each other without laughing." I doubt if there is any intellectual vice to-day so flagrant or coarse as this. I have rather in mind what may seem to many light faults, for example, putting interpretations on doctrines not in accordance with their natural meaning, conforming to usages after the ideas at their basis have ceased to be matters of conviction, staying in a church or denomination on sufferance and not because of a hearty common belief with them. Doubtless this is often done with good intentions, and some good may be mingled with it as with all evil; but it strikes at what is of priceless value I might say, rather, of absolute necessity to the religious teacher; namely, the full heart and the consciousness of entire veracity. Experience proves, too, that doctrines and institutions which require this kind of support are themselves on the downward road; and the process of decay can at the best be stayed, and may even at times (as if in irony of our equivocal intentions) be hastened, by the use of such means. Carlyle is said to have pointed out Dean Stanley to a friend, and remarked, "There goes our friend the Dean, boring holes in the bottom of the good ship Church of England, and does n't know it!"1
1 Lecky, History of Morals, ii. 30, n.
Yet not of the uselessness of the compromising spirit, but of the fact that it is contrary to a true standard of intellectual honor, would I speak. Not a few have apparently yet to get the idea that the intellect as well as the will and outward life is under law; that they are not at liberty to believe what they like; that conviction is only honorable as it is only possible in any strength, when formed in obedience to some kind of necessity. I do not wonder that with such notions men deem ethics too small a thing to become religion. It is too small, when so partially understood. But ethics really means whatever ought to be, and hence is not without bearing on every part of life ; it holds up an idea for the intellect as well as the outward actions, and searches the most hidden motives and processes of the soul of man. "Thou shouldst believe the truth," it says ; " and thou mayst not twist it to thy liking, or anywise play with it; and the truth must be according to thine own reason, else thou art guilty of profaning the holiest within thee." And yet the evil is not one that can be met by any precept. It is a secret spirit, and can only be met by another spirit, which shall, as it were by magic, put health and soundness into the whole intellectual nature. It is the spirit of downrightness, of absolute and utter sincerity. If such a spirit should get abroad in the community, it would turn many a young man from the easy, compromising course he is now contemplating, and empty churches of not a few who listen as well as of some who preach.
1 The anecdote is related by G. W. S. in the New York " Tribune " (semi-weekly), Feb. 25, 1881.